"Teardowns," Samuel Hulick calls them, and by that he means his step-by-step dissections of how some of world's most popular digital services -- Gmail, Evernote, Instragram -- welcome new users. But the term might give an overly negative sense of what Hulick is up to. The Portland, Ore., user-experience designer highlights both the good and bad in his critiques, and his annotated slideshows, under the banner of UserOnboard, have gained a following among design aficionados.
Now Hulick is partnering with two of those fans, a pair of Code for America fellows, to encourage the public to do the same for, say, the process of applying for food stamps. It's called CitizenOnboard.
Using the original UserOnboard is like taking a tour through some of the digital sites you know best -- but with an especially design-savvy friend by your side pointing out the kinks. "The user experience," or UX on these sites, "is often tacked on haphazardly," says Hulick, who launched UserOnboard in December 2013 and who is also the author of the recent book "The Elements of User Onboarding." What's he looking for in a good UX, he says, is something non-designers can spot, too. "If you were the Web site, what tone would you take? How would you guide people through your process?"
Hulick reviews what's working and what's not, and adds a bit of sass: Gmail pre-populates its inbox with a few welcome messages: "Preloading some emails is a nice way to deal with the 'cold start' problem," Hulick notes. Evernote nudges new users to check out its blog and other apps: "It's like a restaurant rolling out the dessert cart while I'm still trying to decide if I even want to eat there." Instagram's first backdrop is a photo of someone taking a picture: "I'm learning how to Instagram by osmosis!"
The genesis of CitizenOnboard began with Jacob Solomon and Alan Williams, two 2013 fellows with the civic nonprofit Code for America. Solomon and Williams were assigned to work with the city of San Francisco on their social aid programs. What they discovered, says Solomon, is that "straight up, most people don't know how government services work -- not the people who rely upon them, the people politically responsible for them, and not the public."
Solomon and Williams spent a weekend last spring applying for food stamps on California's SNAP site, and Solomon e-mailed their slideshow on the experience to Hulick, thanking him for the inspiration.
"Jake," Hulick wrote back, "that was AMAZING. I just went through it twice."
CitizenOnboard's pitch is to get the public to do that same work. They suggest starting with state food stamp programs. Hulick tackled his. The onboarding for Oregon's SNAP service is 118 slides long, but that's because there is much to address. In one step, applications must, using a drop-down menu, identify how those in their family are related to one another. "It took a while to figure out who should be the relation 'of' the other," Hulick notes in his teardown. "In fact, I'm still not 100% sure I got it right."
Design particulars aside, CitizenOnboard is one more example of how Silicon Valley has seemingly been infiltrating the halls of government. Putting users first is an article of faith among those who build consumer-facing apps and Web sites for a living. That isn't always the case in government. I ask Hulick why he was eager to work with Solomon and Williams, and extend his increasingly high-profile brand to an untested civic experiment.
"We speak a lot of platitudes about the power of design," says Hulick. "But is it being applied to a new Facebook spin-off app? Or is it being applied to what's failing in our communities?"
Unsolicited redesigns, as they're known, are a hobby among designers, where they're sometimes dismissed as heckling from the cheap seats. But the public has an inarguable vested interest in having government Web sites work better. And, points out Hulick, the federal health insurance Web site HealthCare.gov fixed its user onboarding only after the complaints of millions of Americans -- few of whom had a lick of professional design experience.